by Kevin Wiebe
What happens when you disagree with someone? How do you respond when you encounter an idea that is so very different that you feel it is inherently incompatible with some of your core beliefs?
These sorts of encounters often lead to dramatic conflict between people and groups—both within churches and between churches. In an effort to understand some of this better and to help me to become a better pastor, our church has been sending me to classes about conflict and congregational leadership. One key lesson is the difference between judgment and curiosity.
Before we go any further, it would probably be useful to define the terms I am using, as both of them have a wide range of usages. Curiosity is not just an automatic disposition or something that killed the cat. Rather, curiosity is the choice we have to seek more information and truly understand the people we are in conflict with. It is choosing to listen and ask questions instead of just waiting to insert our own comments.
When I speak of judgment, I am referring to the tendency for us to become condemning of others, making enemies out of them instead of seeking to know them better.
It should be stated that the context in which I am talking about judgment is not in the sense of critical thinking. After all, Jesus said, “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:57, emphasis mine). Rather, when talking about avoiding a judgmental attitude it is more accurately about our inclinations to become condemning of others before we even begin to understand who they are or what they believe.
Critical thinking, on the other hand, listens to others and then analyzes it in light of truth. It is proper and good for us to think critically about ideas or theology we don’t understand. Faithful believers should filter ideas through the truths of the Bible, like the example of the Bereans in Acts 17:11. This, however, is very different than embodying a hostile and condemning disposition.
A Lesson From Psychology and Neuroscience
An interesting lesson in my classes is that according to studies in psychology and neuroscience, there are certain things the human brain finds extremely difficult to do at the same time. Research seems to indicate that one cannot be both judgmental and curious simultaneously. Furthermore, we have a tremendous capacity to consciously choose which one of those dispositions we embody, even in the middle of conflict.
What this means is that if we embrace an attitude that is judgmental and condemning, we will not do as good of a job listening to them as we ought to and be quicker to make faulty assumptions. We rush to conclusions without giving others a chance to explain. When we are curious, however, we begin to ask questions that help us to better understand matters, and treat others with more dignity in the process.
We Have All Been There
All of us have faced situations like this. Perhaps a young adult cuts us off in traffic and we slam on our brakes, bemoaning millennials and how entitled they all are. We may go on a rant about how doomed the next generation is with that kind of attitude.
We could jump to that kind of condemning disposition, making assumptions about the motives of others or slandering their character—but what if we dared to be curious? What if we were bold enough to suspend our desire to be the judge, jury, and executioner and instead became a detective, wondering about what the truth really is.
The point I am making here, is you cannot know circumstances unless you are curious; and without that knowledge, faulty assumptions abound. Often those explanations curtail our tendency to rage.
Making the choice to be curious instead of condemning can go a long way not only in improving our relationships with others, but also in reducing the stress or negativity we feel about the world around us.
My Dear Mother
My mother is an excellent example of someone who lives with this kind of curiosity. In all the conflicts with other children that I had while growing up I honestly cannot remember a single time that she would let me get away with holding a condemning attitude of someone.
If I would jump to the conclusion that one of my classmates must be the spawn of Satan, or some equally ridiculous accusation, my mother would jump in with a series of questions to spark the very curiosity we are talking about:
Is it possible that they look up to you and are jealous of your accomplishments, so out of the pain of their own failures might be lashing out?
That child has come out of a tough home, don’t you think they might simply be hurting?
When you lash out, it is often because you are hurting; how much pain do you think they are feeling in order to act in the way that they did?
If you misbehaved, wouldn’t you want to be shown grace?
These kinds of questions often led to the calming of a conflict instead of further discord. Though I found this annoying at the time, now I see how my mother wisely set an amazing example for me by demonstrating the power of being curious instead of condemning
As Christians we often run into theological differences with others believers. It can happen between family members, between people within the same church, between churches in the same denomination or between different denominations or schools of thought.
Perhaps we get into a situation where we meet someone who espouses a theological position that we have watched hurt people in the past. For many of us we immediately begin to be suspicious of them. We view them as misguided or somehow lesser than we are.
We might even jump to the conclusion that because they hold a theological position we think is terrible, that they must be a terrible person. This is once again embodying a disposition of condemnation instead of choosing to be curious and asking some thoughtful questions:
If I have been hurt by their theological position, I wonder if they have been hurt by someone with my theological position?
Is it possible that they are not aware of the dangers of their position? Is it possible that there are dangers in my position?
Are they really throwing out the Bible to get to this conclusion, or is it possible that my understanding of the Bible is not yet complete?
Not Endless Relativity
I do not believe that calling for more curiosity and less condemnation should result in endless relativity. There are some beliefs that we as Christians need to stand firm on, such as the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Although even then our attitude matters—only by being curious can we find out why others would have erred in that way if we hope to lead them to the truth.
Many conflicts are greatly blown out of proportion because people neglect to be curious in favour of being condemning. Being curious does not mean embracing the beliefs of people we disagree with, but rather taking the time to understand how they get to that place.
Perhaps if we were more curious we could stop thinking of other Christians with whom we disagree as our enemies, but we could instead recapture a vision of them as our brothers and sisters who are also loved by Jesus.
Kevin Wiebe is the senior pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship (Tilbury/Stevenson, Ont.), a member of the EMC Board of Church Ministries, and the assistant editor of Theodidaktos, Journal of EMC theology and education.